A new take on an old salad: Tons of ideas to make your salads sparkle

Here's a fine pickle I got myself into. Did I say pickle?! Well, I meant salad. As in autumn salad.

You see, it all started with a journalist who wanted some fresh, new ideas for salads.

Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a journalist for an article on autumn salads. Here's the article: Make your salad a seasonal delight with nuts, fruits.

She wanted some ideas for new salads for the fall. Now, I gave her a ton of information and she put some of it in her article, but she also had to leave out a ton (editors only give them limited space). So I've decided to put her questions (in italics) with my answers, below, so you could get some good salad ideas.

Hopefully, this will give you some good ideas to brighten up your salads. And, with all these ideas, none of us has any excuse to skimp on our greens!

- Why are people afraid of diverging from the cucumber-tomato-onion-maybe olives or carrots combo? Do we think it’s too much effort? Prove us wrong.
We’ve all grown up with the head lettuce-tomato-cucumber salad. Because it’s all we got, it’s all we knew. So, even if it was pretty boring, it was a safe and easy choice which is why we continue to do it.

But it is such a dull salad. Sure, you can throw in some sliced onions or some carrots or even some olives, but it is still that same old head lettuce-tomato-cucumber salad. It’s no wonder no one wants to eat their veggies.

For the same amount of work, we can do something so much tastier. For example, instead of that pretty tasteless head lettuce, get a bunch of arugula. It tastes a bit peppery, so it adds a nice kick. Give it a rinse, rip it into bite-size pieces, and throw it on top of some Bibb lettuce. Bibb lettuce is like a rich man’s head lettuce - it has more taste, but it is also more expensive. Maybe add a handful of walnuts. And some chunks of goat cheese. Then try sprinkling the whole thing with some walnut oil to really bring out the walnut flavor.

See, it is the same one-two-three punch of the salads we are used to, but with different ingredients. And, even better, it is no more work than the usual salad but it packs way more taste.

- What are some easy ways people can change up their salads with the seasonal fruits and whatever else?
When I think of autumn, I think of great bushels of crisp, juicy apples. You can make a classic Waldorf salad with these (sliced apples and celery and carrots mixed with walnuts and raisins and lemon juice in a mayonnaise dressing) or you can do what I do and add sliced apples and raisins or grapes to red leaf lettuce to make an incredibly pretty salad. (Tip: Sprinkle the apples with a bit of lemon juice to keep them from turning brown.)

I’m also mad for the wonderful pears you can find this time of year. Sliced (and sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice so they don’t turn brown), they are amazing on a bed of Boston lettuce with chunks of blue cheese sprinkled on top.

Blackberries are also plentiful this time of year. They look like jewels sprinkled in a spinach salad with thin, thin slices of sweet Vidalia onion and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Blackberries can be a bit tart, however, so if yours are too tart to eat raw, drop them in a pot with a spoonful or two of sugar, heat them up for only a minute or two, then pour this mixture on top of French vanilla ice cream with a small splash of balsamic vinegar. Delicious! Sort of a desert salad!

- What are some of the best flavor combinations?
The best flavors always come from the freshest fruits and vegetables. Remember, salads are pretty basic. Meaning you really taste the ingredients. So they have to be the best you can get. Which, ideally, means in-season and locally grown. Because the faster it gets from the field to your plate, the tastier it will be.

Beyond that, it is anything you like. Personally, I look for taste, texture, scent, and color. Taste can range from the almost sweet Boston lettuce to the clean taste of watercress. Traditional texture in a salad is crisp, from young red mustard to the traditional Caesar salad green: romaine lettuce. For scent we can have everything from garlic chives to the snap of fresh basil. And color can be everything from the creamy white and sharp red of cut radishes to the peppery colors and tastes of organic pansies.

You then take these elements and build a combination you like. For example, you can start with a gentle green, such as a leaf lettuce. Then you add some crunch with pine nuts. For scent, you can throw in curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano (you can use a potato peeler to get pretty curls). And, for color, you can add sliced red onion. See how that appeals to all the senses?

- And how about some of the most unusual or interesting ones you’ve come across (read: not commonplace).
One of my favorite salads is French potato salad. It is pretty much like ours, but it uses olive oil instead of mayonnaise. It has less cholesterol problems (no egg yolks) and the clean taste of the potatoes really comes through. I’m also fond of sprinkling diced (finely chopped) fresh basil or thyme on heirloom tomatoes. With a splash of olive oil and sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper, it is so simple and so delicious. I also like to take all my salad ingredients and place them on a crusty roll with some gruyere to make what I call a salad sandwich. Very healthy!

Wilted kale with slices of Fontina is fast and easy. The milder inner curly endive leaves with sorrel and thin slices of orange and a sprinkle of hazelnuts (wonderful with a splash of hazelnut oil) in incredible. Then there are salads with edamame (soy beans) and roasted chestnuts and salads with mushrooms and shallots tossed with red wine vinegar and feta and Kalamata olives and . . .

Okay. Now I'm hungry.